All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace

Computer modeling of complex systems has gotten us in a whole world of trouble in recent years. Filmmaker Adam Curtis has directed a superb series, about this issue, for the BBC called “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace”. The second episode “The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts” will be of particular interest to readers of this blog. It details the errors that occur when we try to model natural systems. I can’t reccomend this program highy enough. Set aside an hour today to watch this program before the BBC copyright police take it down.

Episode 2  “The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts”:

Here’s the first episode “Love and Power” about what happens when computer algorithms and, shall we say, overly confident philosophers gain control over our economic life.

Episode 1: “Love and Power”:

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace from science2art on Vimeo.

Tassajara Cookbook

Mrs. Homegrown here:

A quick cookbook review for ya’ll. I’m having lots of fun with the Tassajara Cookbook which I have out from the library. So much fun that I’m considering buying it. Tassajara Zen Mountain Center is a Buddhist monestery here in California. This book is based on their famous bagged lunch offerings for their guests. This means it’s all picnic/finger food sort of stuff. This suits me fine because summer is here, and I like making meals that require chopping rather than cooking, and that keep well in the fridge.

I love the simplicity, the pure pleasure and endless variety, of chips n’ dips, bruschetta, tapas, mezza… I could live entirely on appetizers and finger foods. This is why I like this book so much. Mr. Homegrown is not as happy–he’s a more of a three-square meal a day sort of guy. But he’s surviving, because for now, in the heat, he’d rather scoop up pesto with crudités than break down and cook.

This book is vegetarian, with plenty o’ vegan recipes. It focuses very much on spreads, dips, pestos, tapenades, sandwich fillings–that sort of thing, as well as various composed salads. It also has a large cookie section, which I’ve not allowed myself to explore yet. The tone of the food is cheerfully high end California hippie: healthy, vibrant, and heavy on the nuts. (No, that’s not a California joke!).

I was surprised by all the haters at Amazon when I checked the reviews of this book. The primary objections are that it’s 1) all snacky stuff–to which I answer they should read the cover and 2) that it’s poorly edited–to which I answer it hasn’t bothered me yet. For instance, if the recipe says preheat the oven at the start, and then goes on to say something has to marinate for two hours before it bakes, I’m not going to blow a gasket. I’ll just hunker down and ponder my way out of that deeply confusing situation.

Waiting for our tomatoes/Tomatoland

grow! grow faster!

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Via Boing Boing, I found this excerpt on Onearth Magazine’s website, from a new book called Tomatoland by Barry Estabrook, which is apparently a document of all the indignities suffered by the industrial tomato–the tomato that sits, bright red, useless and flavorless, on store shelves year round, country-wide. Here at the Root Simple compound, we choose to eat tomatoes seasonally–when they’re coming out of our yard–and make do with canned and dried tomatoes for the rest of the year. Basically, we believe that fresh tomatoes are a privilege, not a right. Right now our tomato plants are covered with blossoms and tiny green fruit, and I’m almost frantic for fresh tomatoes. (The basil is in! Where’s the tomatoes?!?) Yet I know better than to buy a tomato at a store. I haven’t for years.

In this excerpt, Estabrook explains why Erik and I avoid store-bought tomatoes like a plague. I haven’t read his book, so can’t comment on the whole, but I liked the excerpt. It focuses on the tomato industry in Florida. Here in California, we’re not often offered Florida tomatoes. Ours seem to come mostly from Mexico at this time of year–and I have no idea how those tomatoes are grown. Are they better than Florida tomatoes, which are coaxed reluctantly from nitrogen-free sand beds, with massive inputs of chemical fertilizers and pesticides?

…they must be protected from competitive weeds, disease spores, and especially nematodes, which thrive in Florida. Growers have a ready solution to these problems. They kill everything in the soil. To do so, they fumigate the beds with methyl bromide*, one of the most toxic chemicals in conventional agriculture’s arsenal… The chemical is injected into the newly formed beds, which are immediately sealed beneath a tight wrapper of polyethylene plastic mulch. Then the growers wait while the chemical does its lethal work. Within two weeks, every living organism — every insect, fungus, weed seed, and germ — in the beds is dead. “It’s like chemotherapy,” said Ozores-Hampton. Once the soil is suitably lifeless, it’s time to plant tomatoes.

And methyl bromide is just the start–it’s just soil prep. The tomato growers use a large chemical arsenal to bring their crops to fruition:

U.S. Department of Agriculture studies found traces of thirty-five pesticides on conventionally grown fresh tomatoes: endosulfan, azoxystrobin, chlorothalonil, methamidophos, permethrin trans, permethrin cis, fenpropathrin, trifloxystrobin, o-phenylphenol, pieronyl butoxide, acetamprid, pyrimethanil, boscalid, bifenthrin, dicofol p., thiamethoxam, chlorpyrifos, dicloran, flonicamid, pyriproxyfen, omethoate, pyraclostrobin, famoxadone, clothianidin, cypermethrin, clothianidin, cypermethrin, fenhexamid, oxamyl, diazinon, buprofezin, cyazofamid, deltamethrin, acephate, and folpet. It is important to note that residues of these chemicals were below levels considered to be harmful to humans, but in high enough concentrations, three are known or probable carcinogens, six are neurotoxins, fourteen are endocrine disruptors, and three cause reproductive problems and birth defects.

Yes, it important to note that “residues of these chemicals were below levels considered to be harmful to humans” but I dunno…I’d rather skip them altogether, thankyouverymuch.

And is the result of this chemical onslaught a delicious tomato? A “well, it was worth all that methyl bromide” sort of tomato? No, indeed, it is not. All of the resulting tomatoes are picked while green and hard and reddened by application of ethylene gas, eliminating any possibility that they will ever develop flavor. Taste plays no part in the equation. As one of the growers says:

“People just want something red to put in their salad.”

I grew up on flavorless, industrial tomatoes, and as a child, I assiduously picked them off everything I was fed. In retrospect, I don’t blame my young self–they were horrible. Believe it or not,  I didn’t know what a real tomato tasted like until I was 20 or so, not until an aggressive fruit vendor foisted a slice of heirloom tomato on me and I was too polite not to eat it in front of him. The flavor exploded in my mouth. It was–truly–a life changing revelation.

I wonder if more people grew up eating the real thing whether the bottom would fall out of the market for these ghastly Franken-tomatoes? Or are we really satisfied just to have “something red” in our salads?

*Reading the latest scientific literature, Erik has learned that methyl bromide is being phased out of the FL tomato biz, not because of toxicity, but because it generates too much greenhouse gas. (What a charming substance!) There’s no saying it will be replaced by anything less toxic.

Hugo, humanure and nettles

One of the original illustrations to Les Misérables (1862)

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Anne, our neighbor with the pea-ravaging Chihuahua, brings to our attention the fact that Victor Hugo was a humanure enthusiast, and in fact dedicates long passages of Les Misérables to it.

This is taken from Volume V, Book 2 (The Intestine of the Leviathan), Chapter One, provided by Project Gutenberg:

Paris casts twenty-five millions yearly into the water. And this without metaphor. How, and in what manner? Day and night. With what object? With no object. With what intention? With no intention. Why? For no reason. By means of what organ? By means of its intestine. What is its intestine? The sewer.

Twenty-five millions is the most moderate approximative figure which the valuations of special science have set upon it.

Science, after having long groped about, now knows that the most fecundating and the most efficacious of fertilizers is human manure. The Chinese, let us confess it to our shame, knew it before us. Not a Chinese peasant—it is Eckberg who says this,—goes to town without bringing back with him, at the two extremities of his bamboo pole, two full buckets of what we designate as filth. Thanks to human dung, the earth in China is still as young as in the days of Abraham. Chinese wheat yields a hundred fold of the seed. There is no guano comparable in fertility with the detritus of a capital. A great city is the most mighty of dung-makers. Certain success would attend the experiment of employing the city to manure the plain. If our gold is manure, our manure, on the other hand, is gold.

What is done with this golden manure? It is swept into the abyss. 


Fleets of vessels are dispatched, at great expense, to collect the dung of petrels and penguins at the South Pole, and the incalculable element of opulence which we have on hand, we send to the sea. All the human and animal manure which the world wastes, restored to the land instead of being cast into the water, would suffice to nourish the world.

Those heaps of filth at the gate-posts, those tumbrels of mud which jolt through the street by night, those terrible casks of the street department, those fetid drippings of subterranean mire, which the pavements hide from you,—do you know what they are? They are the meadow in flower, the green grass, wild thyme, thyme and sage, they are game, they are cattle, they are the satisfied bellows of great oxen in the evening, they are perfumed hay, they are golden wheat, they are the bread on your table, they are the warm blood in your veins, they are health, they are joy, they are life. This is the will of that mysterious creation which is transformation on earth and transfiguration in heaven. 

I’ll stop there, but it goes on…and Anne says he brings it up again later.

As I recall, Hugo also had a thing for nettles….hey, wait a minute! Turns out that his rant about nettles is in Les Mis too:

One day he saw some country people busily engaged in pulling up nettles; he examined the plants, which were uprooted and already dried, and said: “They are dead. Nevertheless, it would be a good thing to know how to make use of them. When the nettle is young, the leaf makes an excellent vegetable; when it is older, it has filaments and fibres like hemp and flax. Nettle cloth is as good as linen cloth. Chopped up, nettles are good for poultry; pounded, they are good for horned cattle. The seed of the nettle, mixed with fodder, gives gloss to the hair of animals; the root, mixed with salt, produces a beautiful yellow coloring-matter. Moreover, it is an excellent hay, which can be cut twice. And what is required for the nettle? A little soil, no care, no culture. Only the seed falls as it is ripe, and it is difficult to collect it. That is all. With the exercise of a little care, the nettle could be made useful; it is neglected and it becomes hurtful. It is exterminated. How many men resemble the nettle!” He added, after a pause: “Remember this, my friends: there are no such things as bad plants or bad men. There are only bad cultivators.”



I’ve never read Les Misérables, but I’m beginning to think it should be required reading–just for his asides. It’s time to face my PTSD from the musical and embrace the book–all three billion pages of it.

Nurturing the Next Generation of Nature Lovers

Recently, a friend of mine took her daughters for a visit to their pediatrician. She was shocked when her doctor told her on average a child in the Los Angeles area only spends 15 minutes outside each day.
I have always been interested about how children forge a relationship with the world outside. What happens when the door from inside to outside is opened? Is the child given the time and space to build a relationship?
Since becoming a parent, my interest has become even more acute. I discovered Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder where he takes a critical look at children’s shrinking access to unstructured time outdoors. Louv asks who will protect the world outside if they have no connection to it? He argues that the next generation of nature lovers will only grow when they have the space and time to be outside and fall in love.
I think it merits more than 15 minutes a day, but that’s a start.

Bees: Shown to the Children

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Homegrown Neighbor lent us this beautiful little book. The author is Ellison Hawks (what a name!) and dates to 1912. This book is part of a series of books for kids on various natural history topics, all titled the same way (i.e. X: Shown to the Children). I’d love to see the whole collection.

Every time I read an old children’s book, I’m struck by the sophistication of the language and themes presented, and wonder why this has been lost, and then try not to despair for civilization. Take this passage about intruders to the hive, from the chapter called Workers in the City (in the book, the hive is conceptualized as a bee city). It’s poetic and morbid and violent fascinating–all things I would have loved as a child:

Sometimes a mouse or a snail enters the hive, and then indeed there is great excitement. Imagine a great elephant-like creature, thirty or forty feet high, with a tail thirty feet long, to come walking into one of our cities, and you will have some idea what it seems like to the bees when a mouse is foolish enough to poke its head in the hive! But the bees are not frightened; the guards are promptly called out, and the poor mouse is soon put to death by hundreds of stings. Having made sure that the intruder is quite dead, the bees leave his body to the scavengers, who are confronted with the problem of disposing of it. If it were left it would cause disease and pestilence throughout the city, and it is too big and heavy for them to move. It is true that they might bite it into tiny pieces and thus carry it outside the hive, but this would take too much of the bees’ valuable time. A better plan is thought of, and the body is soon covered over with a thin coating of wax. It is thus embalmed in a beautiful white tomb, which is made perfectly air tight. If the tomb is near to the door, and interferes with the passing in and out of the workers, tunnels are cut through it. Sometimes when we look inside a hive, we may see two or three of these little mounts of was, and we may be sure that each one is the grave of some intruder who had no right to be there.

Granted, I believe foreign bodies in the hive, such as mouse corpses, are actually covered with propolis, not wax, but I’m not going to hold it against the authors. First, I’m not sure if I’m right or not, and at any rate, the idea is the same, and very well described.

There’s so much good to say about this book. It’s illustrated with early photos, line drawings, and pretty full color illustrations. In somewhat more than 100 pages it covers bee anatomy, behavior, the process of collecting nectar, hive society, beekeeping basics and even includes a chapter on “The Ancients” which addresses the apparently long-lasting ancient supposition that bees are born from the rotting bodies of oxen (?!?). I’m wondering if that was more of a symbolic conceit, because surely the ancients were no dummies and could tell the difference between blowflies and bees. But it makes for colorful reading, and again, as a child, I would have been entranced. Even if I couldn’t understand half the words.

Turns out this book is hard to find in the US because it’s an UK title. There’s only one Amazon listing, and it’s $23, and a couple more expensive at Alibris, but lots of UK listings for less. We may have to begin direct negotiations with Homegrown Neighbor for this copy.

UPDATE: A reader wrote in to tell us the whole book is available online, for free, at the Hathi Trust Digital Library. So if you want you can jump over there and page through it. I’d checked Google books, and it’s not there. I’m glad to learn of Hathi. They’ve got three other books in the series, too, btw.

A Taste of Honey – Story from the BBC

Gentle readers,

Mrs. Homegrown here. When we renamed our blog Root Simple we were making a commitment to build a better blog. We don’t have the change all mapped out yet–we’re letting it evolve organically (how else?) but one thing we’ve known for a long time, and that is that we wanted to partner with Eric Thomason and Julia Posey from Ramshackle Solid. We’ve long admired their aesthetics, the grace with which they live simply, and the way they’re raising their boys: free and bold.

Don’t worry, Ramshackle Solid fans: they will continue to document their adventures on that blog, just as always. Here at Root Simple they’re going to liven up our game, dropping by with opinions, ideas and information that you probably wouldn’t get from me and Erik, making Root Simple a more interesting place. At the same time, Erik and I will continue to blog as we always have.

So give them a big welcome! And now, on with Eric’s first post, about one of my favorite subjects, the healing power of honey:

photo credit: edibleoffice via creative commons lisc.
The other night, Wednesday Feb 9th to be exact, while suffering a bout of sleeplessness, I had the great good fortune to hear this very interesting 27 min. audio story: A Taste of Honey (BBC)
It’s a very informative news piece starting with the history of mankind’s honey consumption and cultivation, discussing small scale vs. large commercial apiaries, colony collapse and ending with new breakthrough medicinal application of honey for aliments ranging from types of cancer to drug resistant staff infections.
One type of honey in particular, manuka honey, has very effective antimicrobial properties due to an additional compound found only in some wild manuka (leptospermum scoparium) in New Zealand.
Here’s a statement from the Summer Glow Apiaries website:

In laboratory studies honey with high UMF activity (over UMF10) has been found to be effective against a wide range of bacteria including the very resistant helicobacter pylori (this bacteria causes most stomach ulcers), the wound-infecting bacteria staphylococcus aureus and escherichia coli, streptococcus pyogenes (causes sore throats).

If you don’t have the time to listen or prefer to read, much of the health benefits being explored are discussed here in this BBC print piece from 2004: Harnessing Honey’s Healing Power

New Year’s Resolutions

It’s a week for formulating New Years resolutions and I have two that stem from reading Ferran Adrià’s A Day at elBulli. Adrià is one of the main proponents of “molecular gastronomy” (though he rejects the term) a style of cooking that involves not just unusual ingredients, but the creation of entirely new forms of cooking. Think dry ice, freeze drying and culinary thoughtstylings such as “Spherification.” But back to my two resolutions which are:

1. Read, listen to and experience more divergent opinions. I checked out A Day at El Bulli from the library expecting to hate it. I’m all about quality ingredients (preferably homegrown) prepared in simple, traditional ways and will never attempt any of the ridiculous recipes included in this big picture book. That being said, I came away from thumbing through the book with an admiration for Adrià’s creativity even if I agree with Mrs. Homegrown description of the entrees looking like “dog vomit.”* It’s all too easy in the age of Google to succumb to “confirmation bias,” the errors that come with finding only what you’re looking for. While I wouldn’t buy a copy of A day at El Bulli, I’m glad a librarian chose it for the library and I’m happy I took the time to consider Adrià’s point of view even if I disagree.

2. Speaking of Adrià’s creativity–he spends half the year developing new methods in Barcelona and the other half the year working at the remote El Bulli. Making the time for creative thinking is essential, I believe. Even after co-writing two how-to books I find myself spending too much time answering emails and not enough time growing, tinkering and building things. Adrià has it right: if you don’t make that time for creativity it will fill up with unproductive duties. Of course Adrià has someone else to sort through the 2 million (no exaggeration) annual reservation requests.

* A clarifying note frome Mrs. Homegrown: I used the term dog vomit specifically in relation to their signature dishes based on flavor-infused foam. Many of their dishes are strikingly beautiful, art without doubt. But speaking as a dog owner, if you present me with a plate of chunks of food swimming in yellow foam, my mind is going one place and one place only. And when the foam is white instead of yellow, I’m thinking about spittle bugs, or pond life, or stinky beach foam. But you know…whatever turns your crank.

And speaking of those 2 million reservations, Mrs. Homegrown and I are taking a few days off to catch up with things–we’ll be back soon.

Seaweed, Salmon and Manzanita Cider

Mrs. Homegrown here:

I fell into temptation and bought Seaweed, Salmon and Manzanita Cider: A California Indian Feast at the Theodore Payne Foundation this week. I should know by now not to look around that book store. Like Ulysses, I should tie myself to the mast–pay for my native plants and get out. Somehow it never works.

Seaweed, Salmon is a pretty little book. Paperback, thin, but coffee table worthy, because it’s so interesting and at the same time, skimmable. A good gift book. It’s a loose collection of folklore, personal narrative, recipes and preparation tips for wild foods, well-illustrated with color photos. (It is not, however, a plant identification book.)

Yes, I’m on the California Indian/native plant train again (see my recent recommendations) but the wild foods discussed in this book are not exclusively Californian. It covers all sorts of common wild foods, like acorns, elderberries, and rosehips, as well as wild game. They discuss coastal foods like oysters and seaweed, as well as Southwest-specific foods, like yucca, agave, and our ever-prolific friend, the prickly pear.

What I like best about it are the personal stories, and after our turkey business last week, I’m drawn to the stories about hunting. There’s one arresting reminicence of how this man’s mother went into the woods alone with a gun, took down a big buck, dressed it and hauled half of it up a tree, carried the other half back to her camp, and treed that, too…and woke the next morning to find a mountain lion stalking the campsite. And I complain about picking pinfeathers out of turkey carcasses!

It’s worth a look. I just checked and found that it’s in the LA library system (doh!), so if you’re not in a spending mood, maybe you’ll find it at your library, too.

Gift Suggestions, from the Other Half

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Of course Mr. Homegrown didn’t ask me for input on “our” holiday gift guide. Not that I dispute his choices…but I do have some of my own.

These are the 4 most thought provoking books (in this topic area) I’ve read this year:

The first two are closely related, as they are about the horticultural practices of Native Americans in California. You might remember me writing about them earlier.  Apologies for the California bias:

Healing with Medicinal Plants of the West, by Celia Garcia and James D. Adams, Jr., Abedus Press, 2009

Co-authored by a Chumash healer and a USC pharmacology prof., both of whom write for Wilderness Way magazine. A fascinating resource documenting both historical uses and current scientific opinion on our native plants.

My post on it is here.

Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California's Natural ResourcesTending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources by M. Kat Anderson, University of California Press, 2006

I’m still fascinated with this book’s thesis: that California Indians actively managed the California landscape, shaping it into the verdant paradise that awed the first European settlers to arrive here. They were practicing food forestry in it’s most advanced form, as well as wild life management.

This book also introduced me to a concept I’m also still trying to wrap my head around: the idea that plants need us as much as we need them. Our relationship is symbiotic.  Paradise isn’t wild. Plants want to be tended, and they miss our hand. Seems these days we’re either entirely ignoring them or micromanaging them–mandating monocultures and whatnot.  My original review here.

***

The second two suggestions are also related to one another, being about people who are passionate about DIY living. We’ve also talked about these on this blog. And yes, in the spirit of full disclosure, we know both authors and we’re mentioned in both books. It doesn’t make them any less inspirational for me.

Made by Hand: Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway WorldMade by Hand: Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway World, by BoingBoing co-founder and Make Magazine editor in chief Mark Frauenfelder

A quote from Erik’s reviewMade by Hand is not a how-to book it is, paradoxically, the most practical DIY book I’ve read in a long time. Why? Because it’s all about facing that fear of failure, the single greatest obstacle to actually getting out there and doing things.

Despite some internet flapage, the movement she describes is not about putting women back into a state of servitude, or about forcing everybody to wear hair shirts for the sake of abstract, green ideals. I think she does a fine job of showing that homemakers encompass both genders, and that these ideals are neither abstract nor trendy. Radical homemakers work from a place of deep passion and resolve. It’s not for everybody, but it’s probably for more people than we think. If that makes any sense at all. A good discussion-starting sort of book.